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With ‘lynching’ comment, Trump retreats to his racist comfort zone

Pouring gasoline on the embers of racial resentment has always been his go-to move

Victor Garlington holds up a photo of the 1913 lynching of his great uncle Richard Putt outside the South Carolina State House in July 2015. The president’s recent comparison of the impeachment probe to a lynching demonstrate that tribalism and division are all he cares about, Curtis writes. (John Moore/Getty Images file photo)
Victor Garlington holds up a photo of the 1913 lynching of his great uncle Richard Putt outside the South Carolina State House in July 2015. The president’s recent comparison of the impeachment probe to a lynching demonstrate that tribalism and division are all he cares about, Curtis writes. (John Moore/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — When Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley sent her 14-year-old son, Emmett, to visit relatives in Mississippi, she never thought he would return in a casket, a victim of a mother’s nightmare and America’s shame. A group of white men kidnapped, tortured, mutilated and murdered him that summer in 1955 for the “crime” of flirting with a white woman, who years later admitted to lying about their supposed interaction.

Mr. President, that’s a lynching.

Though not the image usually associated with the term — a body hanging from a tree or train trestle, shared on post cards by the bloodthirsty who gathered, often with young ones propped on shoulders to get a better look — Till’s cowardly and unlawful murder fit the definition of a lynching. According to data compiled by the NAACP, there were 4,743 lynchings in the United States from 1882 until 1968, and 3,446 of the victims were black in a country that still struggles with its legacy of racial terrorism.

Need proof? A fourth memorial was recently erected to honor Till, whose murder was a catalyst in the civil rights movement, in no small part due to his brave mother’s insistence on an open-casket funeral because “everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till.” The three earlier versions of the memorial, just outside Glendora, Mississippi, were either stolen, tossed or riddled with bullets. This one, an inch thick, made of steel and weighing more than 500 pounds, is bulletproof, according to the manufacturer, though I’m certain there are more than a few folks eager to test that guarantee.

Donald Trump has become all too predictable. Of course, on a day when foreign service officer William B. Taylor Jr. was undermining the president’s protestations that he never engaged in illegal negotiations with a foreign power in tying opposition research on a political opponent to congressionally approved military aid, Trump would tweet: “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching.”

Nothing new

Yes, it’s self-pitying and plenty incendiary. But pouring gasoline on the embers of racial resentment to coax a conflagration is and has always been Trump’s go-to move — when he made his political bones by insisting the first African American president was not a citizen; when he found a “both sides” false equivalence between Nazis and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia; when he told minority congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from; when he …, when he …

It’s true that some Democrats used the word to describe President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. Most, such as Joe Biden, have apologized, and Clinton himself had the good sense to keep the word out of his mouth.

[Why politicians, and everyone, need to think about legacy]

Trump, as we know, never apologizes, especially when it comes to race. Tribalism and division are all he has, and he doesn’t care if, in defending himself, he burns the house, our house, to the ground. Impeachment is right there in the Constitution, the one the president took an oath to uphold, no matter what you think of the fairness or unfairness of the inquiry in this particular case.

Was Trump paying attention when he made a dutiful visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington? According to now Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, the staff of the president-elect in January 2017 told him Trump “was in a foul mood and that he did not want to see anything ‘difficult’” when he toured, advice Bunch chose not to follow.

In that museum, which I’ve visited a number of times, Till’s casket fittingly sits by itself in a sacred and solemn space, no photos allowed. Difficult and real.

The Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, honor the thousands of men, women and children lynched in acts of domestic terrorism that must be acknowledged before any sort of reckoning and reconciliation.

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How far we’ve come

Is Trump’s latest stunt one step too far for Republicans wanting to retain the “party of Lincoln” label without irony? Though a few have criticized Trump’s comments, many manage to dissemble, and, in some cases, defend the president.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Trump’s tweet “pretty well accurate,” which prompted his 2020 Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, an African American, to invite the senator to join him at Friday’s International African American Museum groundbreaking in Charleston, the South Carolina city where a white racist murdered nine black parishioners at prayer in 2015.

“For three generations in South Carolina, we have understood the evil history of lynching in our state. We have all — Democrats, Republicans, independents — agreed it will not define who we are as South Carolinians anymore,” Harrison said in a statement. “We put the shadow of lynching behind us, but now Lindsey Graham is casting that shadow across South Carolina and our nation to defend Donald Trump.”

When I covered the 2008 presidential race, I spoke with many African Americans voters in South Carolina who experienced racial violence, who remembered family members and friends who did not survive it, and were therefore reluctant to support Barack Obama, out of fear that “they” wouldn’t let him be president. 

Graham is old enough and smart enough to know exactly what those voters were talking about.

Trump plans to visit Benedict College on Friday, a historically black college in Columbia, South Carolina, and no, that isn’t a joke. The president with approval ratings in the single digits among African Americans will join an array of Democratic presidential candidates, though not on the same day, at a bipartisan forum on criminal justice reform.

Trump is sure to tout his signature on last year’s First Step Act, which provided some sentencing relief to nonviolent offenders in the federal prison system. But I wonder what else he will say to the HBCU students, who will be voting in a “straw poll” for their preferred candidate.

Will he be asked, in light of his recent comments, about the state of a bill making lynching a federal crime? This year, three senators — Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, both Democrats running for the presidency, and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only African American representing his party in the Senate — joined in bipartisan co-authorship of the measure, with others signing on as co-sponsors. It passed the Senate, though the House has yet to take it up.

Maybe now that he thinks “lynching” is all about him, Trump might pay attention.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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